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By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. – In the annals of maritime history and popular culture, the Mutiny on the Bounty holds a lofty place and remains relevant even today. The events that unfolded on April 28, 1789 in the South Pacific, when Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian forced Lieutenant William Bligh and eighteen others to abandon HMS Bounty in one of the most famous mutinies in history, came to the forefront of popular consciousness with a recent comment by President Donald Trump. On April 14, 2020, nearly 231 years later to the day, the President tweeted:
With the nation in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, maritime topics have been on the agenda of many of the decisions coming out of the White House. The President and his team met with members of the oil industry to discuss the status of the Jones Act, they discussed potential bailouts with the Chief Executive Officers of the major cruise lines, and to alleviate the outbreaks in Los Angeles and New York, they dispatched the hospital ships USNS Mercy and Comfort. The tweet on April 14 channeled a sentiment attributed to Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison, “that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” But the maritime connotations are perhaps the most interesting aspect.
When the President mentioned that it was one of his favorite movies, it raises the question, which movie? There were five cinematic versions of this story. The first was a 1916 silent Australian film that has been lost to history; so, probably not that one. The next was the 1933 In the Wake of the Bounty starring a young Errol Flynn as the mutineer Fletcher Christian and Mayne Lynton as William Bligh. But this movie was eclipsed when two years later MGM released Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in the leading roles. The latter’s depiction of the Bounty’s captain became, “a byword for sadistic tyranny.”
It would be almost three decades until the next iteration of the mutiny made it to the big screen with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard assuming the roles of Christian and Blight in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty. Then, it was the turn of Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in the 1984 final version, The Bounty. Not to be outdone, the following year a musical performance of the play appeared in London.
Based on the tweet, does the President see himself as Captain Bligh in the current situation with the Governors? If he does, who best captures him – Charles Laughton; I am sure the President does not see himself in that way. Perhaps it is Trevor Howard, the professional mariner against the “dandy” Fletcher Christian. Or is he Anthony Hopkins, who is friends with Christian until their relationship deteriorated and feels betrayed?
It is interesting that the President chose this movie, because while Bligh is usually regarded negatively, he performed one of the greatest feats of navigation and maritime seamanship in the annals of the Royal Navy. Bligh sailed with noted explorer James Cook on his final voyage as sailing master of HMS Resolution. Cast adrift by Christian in a 23-foot launch with 18 other souls into the South Pacific, he had to navigate his open craft 3,500 miles to the Dutch settlement in Timor. A voyage that lasted from April 28 to June 14, 1789.
Bligh was able to get word to British authorities about the mutiny and some of the mutineers were apprehended and brought to trial with three of them executed. The others survived to settle on Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. Bligh went on to command ships-of-the-line at the battles at Camperdown and Copenhagen. Later, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia and experienced another uprising, this time the Rum Rebellion. He retired as a Vice Admiral from the Royal Navy.
President Trump’s selection of Mutiny on the Bounty as one of his favorite movies, and using it to explain his relationship with some of the state governors, will be the subject of discussions and great analysis. However, the story of the Bounty in terms of maritime lore and history seems to be one of those tales that does not want to go away. For the 1962 movie, a replica of HMS Bounty was built in Nova Scotia. That vessel went on to be a tall-ship attraction and sailed from port-to-port for tours.
On October 29, 2012, on a voyage from Connecticut to Florida, she cut across the path of Hurricane Sandy. The vessel lost power and broached, forcing her crew to abandon ship. Aviation assets from United States Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City responded and were able to save all the crew except for two. The ship master, Robin Walbridge was never located and presumed drowned. The other crew member, whose body was recovered, claimed a connection to the original mutineers; Claudene Christian.
There are many interpretations regarding Mutiny on the Bounty, and most people have their preferences. Is it the tyrannical Bligh? Or is it the dandy Christian? Perhaps the collapse in a friendship between the main characters is your favorite? No matter which one you choose, in the end, there is a breakdown in command between the Captain and his lieutenant, Bligh must perform a skilled navigation feat to survive, Christian and the mutineers become hunted enemies of the Royal Navy seeking a new life, and there is great suffering and loss of life. Hopefully, the latest version of Mutiny on the Bounty is not playing out before our very eyes amid a global pandemic.
Steady as she goes! Steady!
Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an associate professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security.
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